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“Old” Hawk Soars to New Heights

At 29, Horton Caps Career with Top 10 Nationals Finish

When he returned to IUP as a student in 2015, DJ Horton felt as out of place as a pickpocket in a nudist colony. A relative graybeard at the age of 24, Horton sat in the back of his classrooms, desperately trying not to call attention to himself.

DJ Horton ’19 during practice last spring (William Hamilton)

DJ Horton ’19 during practice last spring (William Hamilton)

Keeping a similarly low profile as a pole vaulter wasn’t nearly as easy.

Horton reached unprecedented heights—quite literally—with the Crimson Hawks and capped a record-breaking career in May by finishing 10th at the NCAA Division II meet to earn his sixth All-America honor. Or five more than all other pole vaulters in school history combined.

“He’s one of the most decorated athletes we’ve had here at IUP,” said track and field coach Joey Zins. “I know of only one male in the history of our program, Nafee Harris [’15], who was a seven-time All-American. So DJ is way up there.”

A three-time state champion at Kane High School, Horton first came to IUP in 2010. He stayed scarcely long enough to learn his way around campus. “I don’t even think I was here for a whole semester before I dropped out,” Horton said. He didn’t feel at all comfortable and left before ever competing in a meet.

In May, Horton cleared 4.82 meters to win his third Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference outdoor pole-vault title. (Mansfield Sports Information)

In May, Horton cleared 4.82 meters to win his third Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference outdoor pole-vault title. (Mansfield Sports Information)

Horton subsequently worked at a sawmill in Kane—“I realized that’s not the life I wanted,” he said—before deciding to give IUP, and track, another try. 

Because of his quick exit, Horton returned on academic probation, he said. He credits Mark Sloniger ’90, his advisor in the Kinesiology, Health, and Sport Science Department, and his teammates who were also his classmates for supporting him until he got his academic footing. 

He was also hesitant in his return to pole-vaulting. Years had passed since his last competition, and he wasn’t sure he could still jump, so when Horton stepped into Zins’s office to offer his services, he had a specific role in mind: volunteer coach.

Zins, aware that Horton had cleared 16 feet in high school, had a better idea.

“I told Coach Zins, ‘I’d like to work with your athletes,’” Horton said. “He was like, well, if we can have you compete, we’d love to have you pole vault for us. I was like, that would be awesome. I told him not to expect much, because I hadn’t pole vaulted in some time. I thought I could be competitive and score some points for the team, but I told him, ‘I don’t think I’ll be smashing any records.’”

Horton proved a far better pole vaulter than prognosticator. He would indeed smash records, over and over again. By the time he graduated cum laude in May with a degree in physical education and sport/exercise science, he held both the IUP indoor and outdoor marks, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference meet and overall indoor standards, the PSAC overall outdoor record (shared), and numerous facility marks at field houses and tracks throughout the region.

But back in February of his (second) freshman year, Horton was still pretty much an unknown quantity. Because of a pulled hamstring, he missed the Crimson Hawks’ first three indoor meets before making his varsity debut at Youngstown State’s National Invitational meet. Jaws dropped when he cleared 15 feet, 7 inches (4.75 meters), good for second place behind a Division I rival.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Horton said. “I started at 14 or 14-6 and just kept making bars. I hit the national provisional qualifying mark, and all of a sudden I’m taking shots at 16-1, which would have been my personal best. And this was my first meet back! It was crazy.”

As he looked on, Zins quickly realized that the pole vaulter who “completely fell into our laps” was destined to soar like no one at IUP before him.

“I was like, wow, what did we stumble into here?” Zins said. “He came very close to the indoor school record—he missed it by an inch or two. I think my first reaction was, that could get him into nationals right there—after one meet.”

Horton did shatter IUP’s indoor record—15-9 by Troy Litten ’09—three weeks later by clearing 16-2 (4.93) at the PSAC meet to claim the first of his six conference titles. Then, that April at the Slippery Rock Open, he eclipsed ’94 graduate Doug Johnson’s 23-year-old school outdoor record by half an inch with a jump of 16-8¾ (5.10).

By the close of his rookie season, Horton had earned the PSAC Men’s Indoor Track and Field Freshman of the Year award, won two PSAC titles, and finished eighth at the NCAA outdoor meet to earn All-America recognition.
Horton added a PSAC outdoor title as a sophomore and picked up two more All-America honors, won the conference indoor championship as a junior while again earning NCAA outdoor All-America honors, and swept both PSAC titles this year while adding two more All-America certificates to his collection.

He kept raising the bar higher all the while. Horton set the school indoor record at Kent State in February by clearing 17-1 (5.21), a whopping 16 inches above the mark that stood when he arrived at IUP. He set the outdoor standard of 17-0¾ (5.20) as a sophomore at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia.

The irony is that arguably the highlight of Horton’s career did not even involve a record. He closed an injury-plagued junior season by finishing fifth at nationals, a testament to his grit and fortitude.

“I’ve had hamstring problems almost every year, but I’ve kept it at bay most of the time,” Horton said. “Last year I really tweaked it, right after the first outdoor meet. It was just a total setback.”

He didn’t figure to challenge for a spot on the podium at nationals—Horton had been sidelined for the better part of two months, after all—but he defied odds longer than Methuselah’s beard by clearing 16-8 (5.08), good for fifth. No IUP pole vaulter had ever placed so high at an NCAA meet.

“That was definitely a surprise,” Zins said. “It was one of those situations where if it was any other meet, he probably wouldn’t have competed. But it’s the national championships, and DJ wasn’t going to sit out. He’s too much of a competitor. All the records aside, that might be his most impressive achievement.”

Horton battled injuries again this year but still managed to finish 10th nationally both indoors and outdoors, boosting his All-America haul to six. The 29-year-old Horton characterizes his entry into the program’s pantheon of all-time greats as positively surreal, especially given that his 24-year-old self never even pondered the possibility of leaving a lasting legacy.

Back then, Horton assumed his biggest contributions to IUP track would come as a coach and not as a competitor. He couldn’t have imagined soaring to unprecedented heights.

“No, no way,” said Horton, who aspires to coach at the college level. “I remember making it on the podium at nationals outdoors my freshman year and thinking, holy cow, I never expected this. This is just amazing. The fact that everything went the way it did for me at IUP—it’s pretty mind blowing.”